A proposed ban on bump stocks and a bill to enact stronger penalties for so-called “straw” purchases of firearms passed the Delaware House of Representatives on Thursday.
The bills are the first of several gun control measuresintroduced this year to get a floor vote in either chamber of the General Assembly.
Both now head to the Senate for a final vote.
“I think we all understand the issue and how bad it is, and we all want to do something about it,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said after the votes, referring to recent mass shootings that have sparked a national debate over gun control.
Each of the measures easily passed the House, where Democrats hold a nine-vote advantage. Thursday’s votes did not come down to party affiliation, however.
All 16 Republicans voted in favor of the straw purchase bill and only three voted against the proposed ban on bump stocks and trigger cranks, devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at a rate that rivals their fully automatic counterparts.
Two others – Reps. Kevin Hensley, R-Odessa, and Michael Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley – voted for the ban bill, while eleven Republican chose not to vote at all despite reservations about the legislation’s fairness and legality.
Second Amendment proponents have expressed concerns about the bill’s potential to make felons out of law-abiding citizens and the lack of avenues for bump stock owners to get rid of the devices if the bill were to be signed into law.
“If this bill had as a first offense a misdemeanor, I think that would be great,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Daniel Short, R-Seaford. “If we could spend a couple hundred thousand dollars to buy back these products from folks that bought them legally at that particular time, I would be voting yes.”
The after-market devices were thrust into the national spotlight following an Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 concert-goers and injured another 550 — the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Bump stocks were attached to 12 weapons found in shooter Stephen Paddock’s hotel room and are credited with helping him fire off 1,100 rounds in 15 minutes.
Introduced in December and sponsored by Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, House Bill 300 would make buying, selling or possessing bump stocks or trigger cranks a felony punishable by up to five years in prison – the same as other “destructive weapons” such as bombs, silencers and sawed-off shotguns.
Buying and selling the devices would become illegal immediately if the bill is signed by Gov. John Carney, who supports the measure.
Owners would have 120 days to get the devices out of their possession. Turning them into police is the only method considered by the bill.
Short said that could amount to the government taking property without compensation, raising constitutionality questions.
Schwartzkopf said he expects those issues to be resolved with additional legislation or other measures.
“One of these big gun store chains, maybe we could turn them into there and they could get a credit in their store and [have the business] get a tax break at the end of the year,” he said. “[But] the sole goal is to get these things off the street.”
So far, at least three states have passed similar bump stock bans. President Donald Trump on Thursday said the U.S. Department of Justice also is close to completing regulations that would ban the devices.
HB 174, which also passed the House on Thursday, seeks to increase the maximum prison sentence for an initial violation of the state’s prohibition against straw purchases, a term that describes when a gun buyer uses another person to fill out the paperwork required to purchase a firearm.
Those purchases are illegal under federal law but several states, including Delaware, have also outlawed the transactions, which are often used by gun traffickers and people otherwise prohibited from owning a firearm.
Under the current state law, passed in 1994, a first-offense straw purchase is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Mitchell, D-Elsmere, would increase that to five years but leave the maximum punishment for subsequent offenses at 15 years.
It is unlikely, however, that the bill would result in more prison time for many criminals.
Only 38 people have been charged with making a straw purchase in Delaware since 2013, and only three of those cases resulted in convictions on those charges, according to the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System.
“It’s a feel-good measure that does absolutely nothing to actually reduce crime,” said Jeff Hague, president of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, a local affiliate of the National Rifle Association.